Jessica Leigh Hester is a former senior associate editor at CityLab, covering environment and culture. Her work also appears in the New Yorker, The Atlantic, New York Times, Modern Farmer, Village Voice, Slate, BBC, NPR, and other outlets.
“It’s a call to be vigilant everywhere.”
On Wednesday night, an artist swapped out a handful of MTA’s iconic “If You See Something, Say Something” subway posters with a more politically charged call to action.
The artist, who asked CityLab to withhold their name, mimicked the font and design of the agency’s latest twist on the campaign, which it piloted in 2002 before licensing it to the Department of Homeland Security eight years later. The mantra has since gone national, and the MTA continues to tinker with its iterations, too.
Last spring, the agency retooled the campaign with portraits of 56 New Yorkers who did speak out, and a revamped motto, speaking to collectivity and shared accountability. “New Yorkers Keep New York Safe,” the newer posters read—a suggestion that citizens have a role in protecting the city they inhabit.
For this subway stunt, the artist tweaked the text next to photos of some of those folks, whose faces grin down at riders from placards inside of subway cars and buses. Melissa C. is one of those characters: She reported unattended bags she glimpsed from the E train at the World Trade Center station. "I found an MTA employee, who then got another employee to go right down to the platform," she recounted to Gothamist at a thank-you ceremony hosted by the MTA at Grand Central Terminal last March.
The artist’s versions don’t discount the threat of abandoned luggage or unmarked envelopes, but sound the alarm about politicians whose actions aren’t visible to or scrutinized by the electorate.
“What scares me more than an unattended package is an unattended politician,” the tinkered-with poster of Melissa says. “We have to keep an eye on how our representatives vote and hold them accountable.”
The artist installed two set of five posters, interspersed among the MTA’s originals.
The campaign isn’t knocking the intention of the MTA’s catchphrase, the artist says. If anything, it’s an attempt to harness and redirect that attentiveness on the part of civilians. (The subversive poster preserves the number of the help line to contact with immediate safety concerns: 888-NYC-SAFE.) The posters, the artist adds, are an invitation to take a more macro level look at conditions that might qualify as safe, unsafe, or suspicious—and to reconsider the boundaries and definitions of each.
Text on one poster reads: “Be aware of more than what’s right in front of you,” and the artist imagines expanding the lens to encompass the rippling ramifications of policies at the federal and city level. In addition to scanning for something that seems off in the physical environment, the artist says, citizens ought to be wary of “unusual activity that’s happening with your healthcare or defense.”
The gimmick is a departure from the kind of theatricality that has characterized so many protests in recent months. There’s an inherent spectacle in streets or airport terminals or pedestrian plazas flooded with demonstrators, but the posters are subtle—so much so that they might go unnoticed by riders. The artist left a breadcrumb trail in the form of one poster, above, which calls mischievous attention to the stunt. Still, the posters are a bit of an Easter egg: They beseech riders to look closely, while they’re hiding in plain sight.
Some posters’ sentiments are expressly anti-Trump, though he’s not called out by name: One, below, skewers a “president who uses a willing media to perpetuate a constant state of fear.” But the rallying cry is for riders to become informed and active participants in the democratic process, and to contact their representatives—on either side of the aisle—loudly and often. Riders “have to know who our representatives are, that their job is on the line,” the artist told me. “I’m going to go to the polls if I don’t like the way you represent me.”
In New York, resident-submitted reports of suspicious activity tend to swell after violence erupts. Residents call in an average of 42 alerts a day, the New York Times reported, but that call volume surged in the wake of the bomb that detonated on West 27th Street last fall. In the four days after the explosion, the NYPD fielded 818 inquires. If the artist had their druthers, riders wouldn’t wait for the next tangible, incontrovertible crisis before leaping to action.
“It’s a reminder to be vigilant everywhere,” the artist says. “That’s what being a citizen means.”